Allied (12A) Director Robert Zemeckis turns his hand to old fashioned wartime melodrama for Steven Knight’s love story cum espionage thriller to solid effect, so it’s unfortunate that it’s more likely to be remembered as the film that put an end to Brangelina on account of Brad Pitt’s alleged (and denied) affair with co-star Marion Cotillard star. Pitt is Max Vatan, a Canadian pilot and intelligence officer who’s dispatched to Casablanca to link up with French spy Marianne Beauséjour (Cottilard), who’s got herself cosy with high up collaborationists in the Vichy government, posing as her Parisian husband as they plan the assassination of the German ambassador.
The mission turns out to a sort of foreplay and, once the job’s done, he arranges for her to come to London where they get married and have a daughter, born, rather dramatically, in the middle of the Blitz. All’s bliss until Max is summoned to see his commanding officer (Jared Harris) and finds himself face to face with an unnamed spook (Simon McBurney) from the Special Operations Executive who informs him that his wife is suspected of being a Nazi spy and, if that turns out to be true, he has to execute her himself or face being hung as a traitor himself.
Although Marianne’s words, “I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works”, come back to haunt him, he refuses to believe she’s not who she says she is and, disobeying orders, armed with her wedding photo, duly sets out to disprove the accusation, a quest that takes him to a French lock up and a run in with bunch of German soldiers.
It would, of course, be wrong to reveal more and the film cleverly keeps you guessing; however, suffice to say, as per the Casablanca set up, the film has much to do with what is and what is not true, both as regards faked relationships and the people involved. Like their characters, Pitt and Cottilard have persuasive chemistry, enhanced no little by the glowing
cinematography, as the film slips between domestic bliss (including a picnic in their leafy suburb next to a downed German bomber), domestic tension (she susses something’s up when sex gets angry) and tense action before a dramatic climax that, while it doesn’t somehow quite have the punch it should, won’t leave audiences feeling cheated and will probably give Jolie a sense of vicarious satisfaction too. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Almost Christmas (12A)
The dysfunctional family Christmas get together comedy has become a staple of the festive season, and this African-American one won’t deliver anything you don’t expect, but is amusing and warming in all the right places, nonetheless. A year on since wife’s death, retired auto-shop owner Walter Meyers (Danny Glover) is having family and friends over to his house for five days. But without Grace and her famous pies to broker disagreements, can having everyone together under one roof possibly go smoothly?
Among those due to gather round the dinner table are daughter Rachel (Gabrielle Union), now a recently divorced mum trying to pay her way through law school; her overachieving big sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and her former pro basketball player slacker husband Lonnie (JB Smoove); Aunt May (Mo’Nique), a brash and blousy former backup singer with a fondness for a drink and habit of saying what she thinks; Walter’s assorted grandkids; and, destined to spice things up, Malachi (Omar Epps), the now grown-up kid from next door who had a thing for Rachel, and Jasmine, the supermarket assistant she’s wickedly invited who’s been having an affair with Lonnie. Sparks inevitably fly, pies are inevitably burned, long-delayed romance inevitably blossoms and flashbacks to happier times inevitably punctuate proceedings. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a family Christmas movie without a seasonal decoration going haywire, here an electric Santa sculpture, and the obligatory huggy ending. But the fact that you know what’s inside the wrapping, doesn’t make the gift less enjoyable. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Bad Santa 2 (15)
It’s been 13 years since Terry Zwigoff brought a welcome breath of foul air to the annual festive schmaltz and sentimentality, Now, this time directed by Mark Waters and with different screenwriters, the dissolute, depraved and generally drunk Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) is back and, after the shot of redemption at the end of the first film, is back at rock bottom having been dumped by his girlfriend (Lauren Graham not returning for the sequel), living in a dump and depressed. So much so that he decides to end it all by sticking his head in the oven. Unfortunately, it’s electric. Then, midway through trying to hang himself, enter Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), the now grown up pudgy kid who attached himself to Willie in the original and has clung to him as surrogate family over the years. More importantly, he’s also reunited with his short-arsed former accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), who, despite trying to stitch him up and shoot him last time, has another surefire job lined up, in Chicago, and this time with a far higher payday.
However, much to Willie’s horror, the mastermind turns out to be his long estranged, seasoned criminal mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates). She’s brought him in to crack the safe at the homeless charity she’s working at, where, on Christmas Eve, while everyone’s watching the children’s concert, she plans to make off with the $2million or so from its Santa collections which crooked charity boss Regent (Ryan Hansen) is intending to skim for himself.
After much crude name calling and recriminations, Willie agrees to go along with the robbery (a basic plot MacGuffin) , though this will mean them having to relieve the deviant sex-mad receptionist of the key to the office, a task for which Marcus happily volunteers, and, as things turn out, Willie, back in the red suit and beard again, screwing Regent’s neglected recovering alcoholic wife, Diane (Christina Hendricks), variously in an alley, against a wall and behind some Christmas trees. On top of which, the blissfully innocent Thurman has come to Chicago to spend Christmas with Willie.
There’s rather less of the first film’s satire on Christmas commercialism and rather more references to and scenes of anal sex, not to mention jokes about child abuse, disability, race, autism, the list goes on, But, behind the torrent of vulgarity and political incorrectness, the film is also about loneliness, the fear of connection that drives nihilistic self-destruction and, just when you least expect it, a poignant emotional epiphany. Of course, mostly though it’s about booze and sex. Bates is particularly game and scabrously funny as the monstrous, heavily-tattooed mother from hell who is, like her son, the product of a life of suffering, while Brett Kelly is a treat as the film’s unaware angel of light and unconditional love. It is, though a grizzled, stringy Thornton who, even in Willie’s most debased moments, who is the film’s backbone, finding the soft heart beating behind the bile. If you feel you’ll scream if you have to sit through It’s A Wonderful Life again, get yourself on the naughty list and go sit on this Santa’s lap. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Mum’s List (12A)
When Somerset couple Singe (Rafe Spall) and Kate (Emilia Fox) started dating as teenagers (Ross McCormack, Sophie Simnett), she wrote him “contract of mateship”, a playful list of things she required if the relationship was to flourish. Twenty years later she wrote another, rather more serious and poignant list. When their first son, Reef (William Stagg), was 18-months-old, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and given six months to live. He survived and was joined by a younger brother Finn (Matthew Stagg), but the family’s celebration was to be short-lived. On New Year’s Eve, at the four-year-old’s hospital bedside, Kate told Singe, ‘I would swap places with Reef in a heartbeat.’ Shortly afterwards, she found a lump in her breast and was herself diagnosed with cancer. She was given an 80% chance of survival. However, following a mastectomy and chemotherapy, at Christmas 2009 she learned the cancer had spread and the best she could hope for was 18 months. She lived for just one of them.
However, in her final days, she came up with a bucket list of things for Rafe to do, for the boys and himself, after she was gone, this eventually becoming a bestseller and now inspiring director Niall Johnson’s film.
It opens with Rafe picking up the boys after school one rainy day, kissing both of them twice as per Kate’s wishes (these appear as text written on the screen) and proceeds to unfold in three timelines, Rafe and Kate battling with the cancer, flashbacks to their teenage courtship and early marriage and the aftermath of her passing as Rafe tries to tick everything on the list, written on scraps of paper, Post-It notes and text messages, honouring her wish for them not to spend their lives mourning, but finds the instruction to move on and remarry a little hard to face.
As you’d imagine, it’s heartwrenching stuff, but, for all the pain and anguish the pair go through, it’s ultimately an inspirational and life-affirming story of a mother’s love. Fox and, especially Spall’s performance put both them and the audience through the emotional wringer, but, at the same time, there’s moments when Johnson deliberately lightens the sober mood, such as setting the funeral scene to Teenage Kicks by The Undertones to emphasise Kate’s lust for life. At others, he simply lets a look tear you to pieces.
The story doesn’t need any manipulation to involve you and Johnson wisely avoids any disease of the week movie sentimentality, letting the performances and the events speak for themselves. Even so, you’ll still need windscreen wipers on your eyes. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
It’s fair to say that you have to have a hefty degree of patience to watch a Jim Jarmusch film, but the end results are usually well worth it. His latest is a particular case in point, a slow burn meditation on life character piece set over the course of a week in which almost nothing happens, but which is peppered with insightful observations, small epiphanies and a sizeable helping of eccentricity.
Adam Driver is Paterson, a bus driver named for the New Jersey town in which he lives, the birthplace of, among others, Lou Costello, Dave Prater (from Sam & Dave) , Allen Ginsberg and the celebrated poet William Carlos Williams, author of the five volume poem Paterson. Paterson too is an aspiring poet, regularly jotting down lines in his notebook (which we see handwritten on screen as he composes them), the first about a brand of matches. They are, pretty much exclusively, minimalist love poems to his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) who is forever urging him to get tem published or, at least, to make copies. She has a thing about white on black, whether in redecorating the house, her clothes, the cupcakes she makes or the harlequin guitar she buys to follow her latest dream of becoming a country singer. She’s a tad flaky, but Paterson adores her. They also share their home with Marvin, a bulldog who will play a crucial role in the last act, while, when not at home, Paterson is either observing his passengers (an unlikely percentage of whom are twins) or the folk who hang out at the local bar run by the world weary Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). Early in the week he meets a young girl who reads him a poem she’s written, while, on Saturday, feeling dejected and sitting in his favourite spot, watching the Great Falls of the Passaic River, he’s joined by a mysterious Japanese man (Masatoshi Nagase from Jarmusch’s Mystery Train ) who’s reading William Carlos Williams. They talk about poetry and the man gives him an empty notebook. That’s pretty much it.
Playful but, anchored by a subtly, soulfully melancholic turn from Driver, also quietly sad, essentially it’s about finding poetry in the everyday and often random minutiae of life, but also about the need to escape from the stasis into which we can so easily fall mistaking it for contentment (it’s not hard to image another film about the marriage falling apart) and a reminder that life is a blank page waiting for us to write upon it. (Cineworld 5 Ways)
A United Kingdom (12A)
In 1947, insurance clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) met Oxford graduate and law student Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) at the London Missionary Society dance to which she accompanied her younger sister, Laura. Despite the objections of her ultra-conservative shopkeeper father (Nicholas Lyndhurst), who threatens to disown her, and from British diplomat Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), who sneers “have you no decency”, a year later the pair married and looked to face life ahead. This, however, had rather more problems than racism in the streets of London. Seretse was, in fact, heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), a British protectorate, and his intention for them to return home and take up his position, with Ruth as his queen, did not sit well with either his tradition-minded uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who’s been acting as regent, or the powers that be in Whitehall, caricatured by both Canning and even more obnoxious and civil servant Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton) as it would threaten Great Britain’s relationship with South Africa in the light of its new apartheid policies. Indeed, things went so far as for the post-war Labour Government, led by the ineffectual Clement Attlee, to have Khama exiled back to the UK, leaving his wife behind in Africa for several years before she was allowed to join him, his cause championed by the likes of Winston Churchill and young Leftist politician Tony Benn (Jack Lowden).
Arriving in Africa, Ruth also has her own battle for acceptance from the locals, as embodied in her sister-in-law Naledi (Terry Pheto), but knuckling down and a couple of stirring she’s my wife speeches from Seretse soon seem to smooth all that over.
As written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Amma Asante, it’s more a romantic against the odds fairy-tale than political commentary, oversimplifying events (particularly the importance of finding diamonds in the country) to some extent and unsubtly balancing the noble-hearted couple against the weaselly politicians manipulating the marriage for their own ends. Rather inevitably, the scenes in the UK are grey and drab, while those in Africa are picture postcard colourful and vibrant. The need to deliver exposition often gives a clunky feel to the dialogue, but, delivering well modulated performances, there’s a genuine warm chemistry between Pike and Oyelowo and, while his is the more charismatic figure Ruth has determined British get on with it resolve in her blood too. Nonetheless, considerably less impressive than Asante’s previous Belle, which also dealt with themes of colour, society and outsider status, and feeling longer than its two hours, it never really rises above its soft and politely styled melodrama. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Accountant (15)
Following box office misfire Jane Got A Gun, director Gavin O’Connor is back on solid ground with this cool thriller about a high functioning autistic numbers cruncher with OCR tics and a sideline as a tooled-up emotionally blank vigilante for hire with a female voice on the other end of the connection acting as go-between. Think A Beautiful Mind with high calibre bullets.
Opening with an extended prologue in which outgoing Treasury Dept. investigator Ray King (J.K. Simmons) coerces Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young analyst with an undeclared past, to identify the mystery figure known as the Accountant who’s been managing the finances for a variety of shady underworld figures and whom he once encountered and lived to tell the tale.
We first meet the man in question, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), helping an elderly couple stick it to the taxman and he’s subsequently hired to looking into possible financial irregularities at Living Robotics, a high-tech company run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow),where he’s assigned the help of Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick playing suitably bemused), the perky company accountant who stumbled across the apparent discrepancy.
Suffice to say that what she chanced upon and which he breaks down into specific detail leads to them both being marked for elimination as he uncharacteristically seeks to protect her.
Punctuating this is a series of flashbacks, both to Wollf’s childhood as the son of a tough love army officer who puts both him and his brother through brutal martial arts training to equip them to survive whatever life throws their way, and to prison scenes between adult Wolff bonds and a former mob accountant (Jeffrey Tambor), while a parallel narrative involves Brax (Jon Bernthal), the equally ruthless assassin on his and Cummings’ trail. It’s a complex and convoluted puzzle, although the final twists and reveals shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.
Gradually unfolding as an action movie, until the final shoot out it largely tends to keep things as lethally matter of fact as Wolff when he calmly shoots people in the head without a flicker of expression, to which end Affleck delivers a compelling low key and unruffled performance as the threads gradually come together. The note of redemption in the final scenes somewhat strains the character plausibility, but it remains a hugely enjoyable and well crafted thriller which promises to see a solid return on investment. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
It’s been almost twenty years since the last thoughtful and intellectually serious film about first contact (that being Jodie Foster is Robert Zemeckis’ Contact), but, following up Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve has delivered a masterful contribution to the genre that is up there with both that and Close Encounters, and which, like them, is more focused on its human characters than its aliens.
When a dozen elliptical black obelisks suddenly appear over different sites around the world, England, Russia, India, China and the US among them, and just hover there doing nothing (media hysteria and public panic inevitably grow. Meanwhile, US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists top linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to join a multinational team, along with maverick theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and help decipher the language, essentially noises, they have recorded from the occupants, dubbed heptapods on account of their squid-like appearance with seven tentacle limbs at the base of their towering bodies.
Before all this, however, a prologue reveals that Banks has suffered tragedy, her marriage having fallen apart and having seen her baby daughter Hannah grow up only to die young of cancer, flashbacks of which regularly enter her mind when she’s trying to communicate with the two aliens, whom she and Ian dub Abbott and Costello, as they seek to decipher the inky swirl hieroglyphs that are their written language. As you might assume, those flashbacks have a significant role to play. Meanwhile, as she and Donnelly seek to uncover the purpose of the aliens’ visit, some countries, headed up by China and Russia, are getting edgy and, on the basis of their own linguists’ interpretations of the aliens use of the term ‘weapon’, are moving towards military confrontation, their CIA liaison wants to shut operations down and the clock is ticking.
As with the best sci fi, the film isn’t about aliens but humanity and the big questions of life as the screenplay addresses themes of love, loss, time, communication and perception in serious-minded, but never heavy-handed fashion. Relying on audiences’ familiarity with screen narrative conventions, the film cleverly harbours an M Night Shyamalan-like twist that, although the hints do gather in the final stretch, is virtually impossible to see coming and which delivers a breathtakingly audacious and heartfelt emotion-laded resolution.
Although effective enough Renner and Whittaker are, to a large extent, peripheral and the film is very much anchored by a terrific internalised, restrained and ultimately deeply moving performance from Adams that should safely see her among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Black Girl (n/a)
Eager to find a better life abroad, a Senegalese woman takes a job as a governess for a French family, but finds her position reduced to that of a maid after the family moves from Dakar to the south of France Here, constantly made aware of her race and mistreated by her employers, hope turns turns to disillusionment and despair as she consider suicides the only way out. Directed by Ousmane Sembene, it was the first sub-Saharan African film to receive international acclaim. (Thu: MAC)
Dare To Be Wild (PG)
The story of how Irish landscape designer Mary Reynolds came to win a gold medal at the 2002 Chelsea flower show is an inspiring account of overcoming the odds; unfortunately the film turns it into a drearily dull allotment of this Irish clichés and stereotypes film with a romance that has all the spark and allure of a wilted daffodil. (Odeon Birmingham, West Brom)
Doctor Strange (12A)
One of the Marvel Universe’s biggest box office hits, this sees Benedict Cumberbatch perfectly cast as Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant and egotistical New York neurosurgeon who, his hands crippled in a car accident, sets off to Tibet in search of a mysterious order than he believes can heal him, eventually being taken in and mentored by the so called Ancient One (a shaven-headed Tilda Swinton) and her disciple, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the mystic arts. Initial skepticism quickly giving way to a driven desire to amass as much knowledge as possible, Strange’s first challenge comes when Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a disciple turned rogue who stole a forbidden spell, returns to destroy the three sanctums protecting this world, thereby allowing the dark dimension, ruled by Dormammu, to gain access and domination.
The occult arts are, of course, a licence to let the special effects run riot and the film doesn’t stint, characters creating warp holes with their special rings, both the Ancient One and Kaecilius using spells to make reality – as in the streets and buildings of New York – fold in on itself like some living kaleidoscopic Escher nightmare, everyone wielding mystical weapons and Strange, equipped with the Eye of Agamotto and his iconic sentient red cloak, able to move time back and forth.
However, as with all the Marvel Universe films, it’s about more than visual spectacle with the cast and screenplay bringing philosophical, psychological and emotional depth to proceedings, one scene in particular managing to be simultaneously funny, thrilling and dramatic, as Strange has to fight not only against those bent on destroying the world, but also his own insecurities and damaged sense of self-worth. Indeed, with his line in flippant humour, Cumberbatch’s Strange is cut from similar cloth to Tony Stark.
Unlike the comics, here Wong (Benedict Wong) is the keeper of the Ancient One’s library and protector of the Hong Kong sanctum as opposed to Strange’s valet, while the romantic interest is provided not by fellow mystic Clea, but by fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a name Marvel fans will recall from the short-lived Night Nurse and Nightcrawler comics. And while Ejiofor may feel somewhat underused this time round, his role as Strange’s nemesis in the comic, ensures he’ll have much more to do in the inevitable sequel while the obligatory end credit scenes reveal that, before then, Strange will be casting a spell over the upcoming Thor: Ragnorak. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)
J.K. Rowling makes a dazzling screenwriting debut as, with David Yates directing, she returns to the wizarding world for the first of five films based around the Hogwarts textbook of the title written by magizoologist and former student Newt Scamander (a superb Eddie Redmayne).
Expelled from Hogwarts over an incident regarding one such beast, at that time regarded as dangerous and feared by the wizarding community, the freckle-faced, tweed-jacketed and slightly clumsy Newt arrives in Prohibition-era New York carrying a suitcase containing a whole menagerie of creatures that he is trying to keep safe. Unfortunately, a faulty lock sees one of them, a Niffler (a sort of cross between a mole and a duck billed platypus with a penchant for collecting shiny objects) escapes and Newt’s search to recover it leads him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler), a portly No-Maj (as Muggles are called in America) factory worker with dreams of opening a bakery, with whom he accidentally switched cases. Soon there’s even more beasts on the loose and Newt is arrested by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former aura with the Macusa (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) trying to get back in its good books after an incident saw her demoted to clerical work.
With a dark wizard by the name of Grindelward waging a magical war on humans, things are edgy in America where the Macusa, headed by female president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), have outlawed all beasts and are doing everything to prevent their wizarding kind becoming known. Meanwhile, the puritanical Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), with her legion of adopted children, among them Credence (Ezra Miller) and his ‘sisters’ Modesty (Faith-Wood Blagrove) and Chastity (Jenn Murray), is crusading to expose the witches she claims to be threatening the American way of life, calling for a Second Salem.
Unbeknownst to her, Credence is having secret meetings with Percival Grace (Colin Farrell), a power-hungry senior aura looking to get his hands on the unidentified child host of the Obscurial (a swirling elemental force of dark magic) that is causing swathes of destruction throughout the city.
Now, joined by Joe, who he was unable to obliviate, Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who takes a fancy to their Mo-Maj accomplice, Newt has to both recapture all the escaped creatures (one of whom just happens to be invisible) and prevent Grace from carrying out his hidden agenda.
The film keeps Newt’s backstory limited to just a few hints, allowing for more to develop over the course of the series, and keeps the focus very much on the central narrative, although it does find time for some stupendous diversions, such as the bank chase, a journey inside the suitcase to where the creatures are kept – one of whom, a sort of giant rhino, develops an unfortunate desire to mate with Joe – a magical dinner at Tina’s place and a visit to a wizarding speakeasy to get some vital info from low life goblin Gnarlack (Ron Perlman).
Barebone’s witch-hunt clearly serves as a political allegory for the fear and bigotry abroad in Trump’s America, providing for some very dark moments that include the murder of the Senator son of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and the beatings of Credence by his ‘mother’. But, there’s much fun too and the breathtaking visuals mean there’s so much going on in the background you’ll need – and want – to see this over and over.
The closing reveal sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Girl on the Train (15)
One of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films, directed by Tate Taylor and relocated from London, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestseller remains firmly in the second class carriage, but does make occasional rewarding visits to the buffet bar. A secret alcoholic, divorced and miserable Rachel (Emily Blunt) makes the regular commute from the leafy suburb where she’s dossing with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, vanishing from the plot midway) to New York. Along the way, usually in an alcoholic haze from the vodka she sips from her water bottle, she stares at the row of houses where she used to live with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) until, a mix of her drinking and subsequent blackouts and an inability to get pregnant saw him have an affair with and subsequently marry Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who, a stay at home mom, now shares the house with him and their baby daughter. Mentally unstable, Rachel keeps harassing them with anonymous phone calls and there was also an incident when Anna found Rachel in their back yard with the baby.
A few doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a former art gallery employee now working as Anna’s nanny, and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who, although she’s never met them and doesn’t even know their names, Rachel fantasises as the perfect couple of her broken dreams.
So when, one day, she sees Megan snogging someone else on their balcony she’s takes it as a personal outrage and, one evening, in a particularly drunken state, gets off the train and stumbles to where Megan jogs to give her a piece of her mind. Which, when she wakes up, covered in blood, is all she can recall. And, when the cops, in the form of detective Riley (a criminally underused Allison Janney) turn up saying Megan’s gone missing, intimating that she might be a suspect, Rachel, struggling to remember things, embarks on her own investigation, leading her to visit Scott to tell him what she saw and then, discovering the mystery man was his wife’s shrink, Dr. Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), tracking him down too.
Nodding to both Victorian melodrama Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with the latter’s same voyeuristic constituents, told in disjointed flashbacks it offer glimpses into the lives of the three women and their relationships as a means of explaining their personalities and actions, all three being variously linked by infertility, pregnancy and infidelity.
Rachel is an effective unreliable narrator, her perceptions and memories clouded by alcohol, just as the film plays with the gulf between appearance and reality with everyone hiding some sort of secret, in particular Scott who is actually something of an abusive thug.
Unfortunately, to crank up the thrills, the film is also an unreliable narrator, misdirecting the audience with Rachel’s memories, such as the drunken outburst at his boss’s wife that got him fired, designed to frame her as an unintentional killer. Inevitably, however, as is typical of the genre, it’s where and at whom the film doesn’t make you look that the truth lies.
Blunt is very good as the troubled, self-doubting alcoholic, plagued by memory loss, but convinced she holds the key to Megan’s disappearance, as is Bennett as the no less damaged and complex Megan, but the others are all rather cardboard, one-dimensional figures and, although the film works to make Rachel sympathetic, they’re all rather ugly characters. Riddled with implausibility and the less persuasive the more it goes on, it’s a reasonable enough female victimisation thriller, but it’s no Gone Girl. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
I, Daniel Blake (15)
A sobering serio-comic tragedy for our benefit cuts times, Ken Loach returns to skewer the callousness of an uncaring system, opening with voice over tas recently widowed,59-year-old Newcastle joiner Daniel (Dave Johns) delivers a series of increasingly frustrated responses to the ‘health care professional’ assessing his entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance.
Inevitably, although his doctors and physiotherapists have told him not to return to work following his heart attack, he’s declared fit and his application’s denied. Duly visiting the job centre, he’s met with a minefield of implacable digital-by-default bureaucracy and threats of sanctions, the patronising staff ignoring his protestations that he can’t fill anything in online as he doesn’t have a computer or know how to use one. While there, he witnesses the treatment of a Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother and her two kids, recently relocated from London, who, late for an appointment, are refused benefits. He comes to her aid and both are duly ejected. Being a man of kindness and compassion, he helps her further, getting her food and doing repairs around her new flat and bonding with her and the children, the self-possessed Daisy (Briana Shann) and the younger, OCD Dylan (Dylan McKiernan).
The relationship between the members of this impromptu family and the good natured rapport between Daniel and his chancer high-rise neighbour stand in direct contrast to the uncaring attitudes of those embodying the Department of Work and Pensions, although, there is one token job centre employee who does show sympathy and tries to help Daniel through the labyrinth.
Written by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, there are times when it edges into both sentimentality and caricature, but the central characterisations and performances are superb and both the act of protest that gives rise to the title and Daniel’s final testimony will make you want to cheer and cry respectively. At the end of the day, its social commentary about a Kafkaesque bureaucracy isn’t saying anything new, but, as the government’s war of attrition on the poor continues to gather force, it’s a movingly potent reminder that those on the other side of the desk, on the other end of the phone, aren’t clients or numbers, but people with feelings and rights, especially to their dignity and respect. (Tue-Thu: Electric)
In Bloom (15)
Set in 1992, in the newly independent state of Georgia with civil war raging in the provinces. 14 year-old best friends Eka and Natia find their childhood in capital city of Tbilisi has come to an abrupt halt, with insecurity and fear holding sway in everyday life.
The introverted Eka lives in a book-filled apartment with her dismissive sister and her distracted mother, while, living in a cramped apartment with her extended working-class family, dominated by her alcoholic father, the precocious Natia has attracted the attentions of both the handsome Lado and local criminal Kote. The gift by Lado to Natia of a pistol, to ‘protect herself with’ fractures the lives of both girls and tests their relationship, as each responds to pressures beyond their control in very different ways. (Sat: MAC)
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (12A)
Despite the iffy reviews and indifference which met the first film, Cruise seems determined to turn the Len Wise character into a franchise. However, perfunctorily directed by Edward Zwick, who seems to have no idea of or flair for action movies, this lacks anything resembling visual or technical style, while the moth-eaten plot is riddled with holes and the ‘terse’ dialogue wouldn’t pass muster in an amateur screenwriting contest.
It opens promisingly enough with an extended version of the trailer, although this has nothing to do with what follows other than to set up the connection between Reacher, no longer a major in the Military Police, and his replacement, Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Eventually turning up in Washington, he finds she’s been arrested on espionage charges, immediately sussing a set-up and setting out to find out what’s going on. It seems that two of her officers were shot in Afghanistan while investing sales of army weapons to insurgents, and now those responsible want her out of the picture too.
So, he busts her out before they can kill her and the pair take off to uncover who’s behind the conspiracy and prove her innocence. Matters get complicated with the introduction of Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old whose mother has lodged a paternity claim alleging Reacher’s the father. Naturally, the bad guys, who work for the obligatory corrupt arms suppliers, decide to use her to get to Reacher once he sticks his nose into their business.
So, now we have three of them on the run from both the usual array of fixated hitman (Patrick Heusinger), ineffectual henchmen, the military and the cops in a chase that eventually climaxes in New Orleans, the only time the lumbering and repetitive film shows any sense of life.
Yarosh does the best she can with a character the script requires to be and act differently depending on where she is in the plot and Smolders is far better than the film warrants. However, even for a character whose feelings are kept hidden, Cruise seems unusually limited here, registering his emotions by either narrowing his eyes or clenching his jaw, and even the fight scenes, while decidedly violent, lack the excitement of a Mission Impossible. Firmly in the B-movie leagues, it brainlessly whiles away and hour or so, but Cruise really should take the title to heart if he’s contemplating a third installment. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Light Between Oceans (12A)
Adapted, at great length, from M.L. Stedman’s bestseller by writer-director Derek Cianfrance, this is an upmarket art house tearjerker steeped in themes of guilt, love, forgiveness and redemption as well as philosophical moral quandaries.
Set just after the end of WWI, looking for quiet and solitude after experiencing the slaughter of the trenches, taciturn veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes the temporary position of the keeper of the Janus lighthouse on a remote island off the western coast of Australia, the former occupant having gone stir crazy following the death of his wife.
Sherbourne, however, welcomes the isolation, perhaps in part to assuage his feelings of survivor-guilt. Not that this last long. On his second meeting with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of one of the mainland families. Herself having suffered the loss of two brothers in the war (as revealed in one of the film’s most effective scenes), she takes him on a picnic and suggests he marries her. He demurs, but, a short-pen pal relationship later, they’re wed and sharing domestic bliss in the homestead below the lighthouse. She even persuades him to shave off the moustache. Before long, their happiness is compounded when she becomes pregnant. But then tragedy strikes as she miscarries. And then it happens a second time.
However, within days, Tom spots a rowing boat in the sea, in it a dead man and a living baby girl. It’s his duty to report this, but, when Isabel begs to keep the child, who she names Lucy, and raise her as their own, his love and the suffering she’s been through, persuades him to go along with things.
Inevitably, at some point, Lucy’s real mother will put in appearance, duly doing so at the christening as Tom spots Hannah (Rachel Weisz) weeping at the gravestone for her husband (the fact she was ostracised by her wealthy landowner father – Bryan Brown – for marrying a German adds to the burden of suffering) and daughter, Grace, lost at the sea on the day before Lucy came into their lives.
Although unable to reveal the truth, Tom does leave a note saying the child is well, loved and being cared for, which, naturally enough, brings the local police into the matter. Even so, the secret remains. Until, four years later, when, struck by another pang of conscience, Tom sends Hannah a package, with far-reaching ramifications that lead to Lucy (Florence Clery) being reclaimed and Tom, insisting he forced Isabel to go along with things, on a murder charge and she ultimately faced with an agonising choice. Needless to say, very much chiming with today’s social services, the child’s feelings are given no consideration in the parental tug of war.
Handsomely mounted and with terrific intense performances by Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz, it’s serious-minded period melodrama of Thomas Hardy proportions as it explores the price and sacrifices love exacts, the cruelty of fate and the ill-advised choices made by flawed but good people. Just to underline the symbolism, Tom helpfully explains that Janus is named after the twin-faced god, looking to both the past and the future.
Unfortunately, although never descending into Nicholas Sparks soap opera, the flashbacks to Hannah with her husband (Leon Frost) and baby seem loaded (surely the audience can be trusted to understand her sense of loss) and after carefully building things in the first two acts, the third feels rushed and confused, the characters more one note, and, while the epilogue is undeniably poignant, the crisis of love and loyalty that immediately precedes it is too elegantly handled to unleash the emotions it seeks to elicit. Somewhere between the two turbulent oceans, the film is becalmed. (MAC)
Nocturnal Animals (15)
Fashion designer Tom Ford follows his 2009 writer-director debut, A Single Man, with a slow burning adaptation of Austin Wright’s revenge thriller, Tony and Susan, its shots of obese naked women dancing in slow motion in front of a camera like no credits opening before them. They are, it transpires, part of the latest exhibition staged by high powered but emotionally distant Los Angeles gallery director Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) businessman husband’s (Arnie Hammer) financial problems are threatening to bring them both down. The marriage is also on shaky ground, confirmed when he says he has take off on a weekend business trip and we subsequently see him in a hotel with another woman.
Meanwhile, Susan’s received the draft of a novel by Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her college sweetheart and first husband whom she’s had no contact with in 19 years. Dedicated to her, it’s titled Nocturnal Animals after her insomnia. The film now divides into three strands: the present as she reads the manuscript, flashbacks to their time together and the events in the novel wherein, driving through West Texas at night, Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are orced off the deserted highway by a bunch of redneck thugs (led by an effectively repellant Aaron Taylor Johnson,) who kidnap the women. Eventually found naked, dead after being raped, the investigation is taken on by Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a grizzled lawman who, as the months pass, makes it a personal quest to bring the murderers to justice and, if that fails, to help Tony gain revenge.
As the film interweaves between the real timelines and the fictional events which Susan’s disturbed by but compelled to read, seems that Edward (never seen in the present) is using the memories the story evokes to punish his ex-wife, who never offered the support he needed and (echoing her ultra-conservative mother – Laura Linney) saw him as weak. There’s also another very specific reason that only becomes clear in one devastating flashback. Tellingly, Susan visualises Tony as looking like Edward, while casting Fisher as the wife clearly has its own visual resonances. Significantly, the flashbacks are only ever seen from Susan’s perspective, which further compounds the suggestion that this may be about a consuming sense of guilt.
Slowly and assuredly building the suspense, the ending won’t please those who like everything tied up neatly, but there’s no denying it lingers in the mind. (Cineworld 5 Ways; MAC; Vue Star City)
Ouija – Origin of Evil (15)
Despite being a thoroughly forgettable horror, the original movie made enough money to warrant this prequel, one to which Before I Wake director and co-writer Mike Flanagan brings a little more meat and style as well as something resembling emotional depth. Set in 1967 L.A., 50 years before Ouija, it provides a backstory for Paulina Zander (Annalise Basso) who, along with her younger sister Doris (Lulu Wilson), helps mom Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) run a spiritualist con from their home, duping the locals that she can communicate with the dead. Looking to add a little extra, Doris introduces an Ouija board, one which does actually seem to forge a connection with the other side. And one which sees the kid possessed by a dark, mouthless entity which could possibly be the spirit of her dead father, thereby requiring the help of local priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas. At the end of the day, it doesn’t offer much by way of anything new to the genre, but its acting is sufficiently strong and the scares sufficiently masterly handled to make it one of the year’s better horrors. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
Son of Saul (15)
A Best Foreign Language Oscar winner, László Nemes’s directorial debut is a detached but harrowing Holocaust drama that finds a spark humanity still flickering amid the unimaginable horrors of Auschwitz. The year is 1944 and, losing the war, Germany is speeding up the extermination of the Jews, ferrying in transport after transport of ‘pieces’ to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp to be gassed and burned, their possessions sized, their identifications destroyed and their ashes shovelled into the lake. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian Jewish prisoner and one of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners given the job of getting the new arrivals into the ‘showers’ and then carting away the bodies. knowing full well that, at some point, it will be their turn too.
Among the latest arrivals, a young boy survives the gassing, only to be subsequently suffocated by one of the officers and his body sent for autopsy. The rest of the film centres around Saul trying to seek out a rabbi to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, over the boy and then give him a proper burial. At one point, when asked why he’s “ betrayed the living to help the dead” and put at risk the others and a planned uprising, he says that the dead boy is his son, His fellow Sonderkommando tells him he never had a son, but whether he is or not is irrelevant, the important point is that the boy has stirred something within Saul that had all but been extinguished by the gruesome job he does. Saul seeks to bring meaning to a meaningless world.
Nemes mostly focuses the camera on Saul’s face, a canvas of both agony and an emotional blank, always keeping the horrors at the edge of the frame, only indistinctly seen (echoing the way those involved had to essentially not see them either in order to survive), all of which makes the final shot of Saul all the more powerful. It’s a difficult watch, but an essential one. (Sun: MAC)
There have been several animated films this year that could well find themselves with an Oscar nomination. This won’t be one of them. Written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man behind the likes of Bad Neighbours, Zoolander 2 and Get Him To The Greek, it is every bit as brash and noisy as those, apparently none of the cast able to deliver their lines in anything less than a shout, the entire film the visual and aural equivalent of a serious case of over-caffeination. And let’s not even get into the havoc it’s going to play with parents explaining the facts of life to their kids.
Back in the day, storks delivered babies, but, following an incident in which one of the birds (Danny Trejo) tried to keep the tot for himself, breaking her, quite literal, homing beacon in the process, they got out of the baby business and now deliver parcels from their Cornerstore HQ on Storm Mountain.
Top of the delivery tables is Junior (Andy Samberg) who is thrilled to be told by Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), the big boss who uses little birds as golfballs, that he’s going to be promoted to take over from him at the upcoming StorkCon shareholders meeting. But first, he has to fire Tulip (Katie Crown), who, the baby that never got delivered, still lives with them. Now that she’s 18th (and also because she tends to cause all kinds of chaos), Hunter says it’s time she became part of the human world. However, faced with telling her, Junior just can’t get the words out and, instead, tells her she’s been given a job in the letter sorting office. Which she should never leave. Given that nobody writes asking for babies any more, she’s bored out of her head and spends the time talking to herself, at frenetic speed, acting out (with the help of a pliable hairdo) different personas, each of them excruciating annoying.
Meanwhile, out in people land, his real estate parents (Ty Burell and Jennifer Aniston) always too busy to spend any time with him, young Nate decides he’d like a baby brother, one with ninja skills. Mom and dad dismiss the idea, but, finding an old leaflet about the stork service, he writes a letter which duly winds up in Tulip’s hands and, before Junior can stop her, goes into and reactivates the baby making machine. Now they find themselves with an unexpected tot to deliver, before the meeting and before Hunter finds out. Junior, however, has injured his wing, but, fortunately, Tulip’s cobbled together a makeshift plane.
Without prolonging the agony of explaining things, suffice to say that Tulip’s maternal instincts mean the mission doesn’t go as planned, leaving the trio being pursued by wolves and, thanks to the aptly named Pigeon Toady, quite possibly the most annoying animated character ever, their secret is revealed to Hunter. And to top it all, Jasper, the stork who tried to abduct Tulip in the first place, also turns up, determined to rectify his screw up. All of which somehow manages to end up with Nate’s intended sibling in the custody of Hunter’s penguins and the baby machine churning them out like rabbits.
There are some good, imaginative moments (almost all of them involving Alpha and Beta, the two wolves who fall for the cute pink-haired infant, and the way the pack is forever forming itself into things like a van, plane or submarine), but they’re mostly overwhelmed by the unrelenting screech elsewhere. Undemanding kids may be entertained, but, unfunny, relentless and charmless, the best thing to be said is that it’s not as bad as the profoundly tedious The Master: a Lego Ninjago Short that precedes it. A bundle of joy it is not. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)
A Street Cat Named Bob (12A)
Directed by Roger Spottiswood and based on the bestselling autobiography and subsequent series of books, this is a heartwarming tale about someone turning their life around with the help of a loyal friend. In this case, a cat.
It’s 2007 and James Bowen (Luke Treadaway) is a recovering heroin addict on a methadone programme, earning spare change as a London busker (courtesy of songs by former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink). Thanks to his supportive case worker (Joanne Froggatt), James gets one last chance when he’s allocated a social housing flat into which, one night, comes a stray ginger tom. When attempts to find its owner prove fruitless, James decides to keep him (or vice versa), which, in turn, introduces him to Betty (Ruta Gedmintas), his vegan neighbour with her own past drugs-related tragedy, who informs him that the animal wants to be called Bob and has come to James for a reason.
And so it would appear as, taking him out busking, Bob’s soon attracting hitherto unknown crowds and turning the pair into a YouTube phenomenon and, when an incident has James banned from busking, joins him selling the Big Issue, perched on his shoulder outside Angel tube station in Islington with people asking to have a selfie taken with him. His life gradually turning around, James seeks to reunite with his estranged father (Anthony Head), but, while there’s a general lightness of tone and often playful humour, there will still be darker passages to navigate before the happy ending.
The tone’s uneven, but, steering clear of mawkishness, while minor, it’s an appealingly and very British feelgood film about choosing life and the redemptive power of friendship that’s well served by its central two legged cast, although it will come as no surprise to learn that, mostly playing himself, the real star here is Bob who makes Pudsy look like a rank amateur. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Created in Denmark in 1959, the soft plastic troll dolls with their big eyes, big grins and various shades of furry upcombed hair, known as Gonks in the UK, were a huge fad in both the 60s and at different times from the 70s to the 90s. Now they’re back, making their feature film starring debut in this animated Day-Glo musical adventure from the various creators of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda that’s aimed very firmly at the under-7s.
A felt scrapbook prologue introduces the Trolls as “the happiest creatures the world had ever known”, always ready to burst into a song or dance and hugging every hour. They once lived in a tree in the middle of the town, but their neighbours, the ogre-like Bergens, led by King Gristle (John Cleese), had no idea what happiness was. They were the most miserable creatures in the world. Seeing how happy the Trolls were, they thought that they could feel that happiness too – if they ate a Troll. And so began the annual ritual of Trollstice, during which the Bergen Chef (Christine Baranski) would pluck Trolls from the tree and serve them up. Until the day came for Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to have his first taste of Troll and it was found that the Trolls had all escaped, leaving the Prince in tears and Chef in exile.
Twenty years later, after being led to freedom by King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor), the Trolls live safely hidden in the forest, enjoying a life that is all rainbows, under the uber-enthusiasm of the brightly pink Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick). To commemorate their escape from the cooking pot, she’s planning to hold the biggest, brightest and loudest party ever. Something that Branch (Justin Timberlake), who, coloured a drab grey, is, for reasons we discover later, the world’s only unhappy troll, warns will give their location away.
And, so it is that, in the midst of their celebrations, along comes Chef who scoops up a bagful of Trolls, including blue Biggie (James Cordon), the giraffe-like Cooper, hippie-philosopher Creek (Russell Brand), fashion twins Satin & Chenille (Icona Pop) and Sparky who, to the delight of the youngsters, farts glitter dust.
And so, Poppy resolves to rescue them, a quest in which she’s reluctantly joined by Branch and which will involve them joining forces with scullery maid, Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who’s secretly in love with Prince Gristle, giving her a Cinderella-styled rainbow hairdo makeover, complete with discarded skating boot in place of a glass slipper. And, inevitably, any number of mostly disco-driven songs, the soundtrack featuring both new Timberlake numbers and old hits like True Colors and I’m Coming Out.
Although there’s some sly references, there’s very little here for the grown-ups. However, as well as a subtle anti-drugs caution about pill-popping to feel good, the message about how true happiness lies within you has no age limits and, while the film’s relentless energy may be exhausting, it’s also infectious with such various inspired and funny moments as the talking Cloud Guy. Anyone older than their shoe size may find it annoying, but it’s still hard not to leave without a smile on your face. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879
Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714
Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield
0871 471 4714
The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060
MAC – Cannon Hill Park
Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007
Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777
Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich 0333 006 7777
Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316
Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000
Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240